elegy written in a country churchyard summary

ABOUT THE POET

Thomas Gray was born in London in 1716. His father was a broker. He was educated at the famous school called “Eton” for seven years. From Eton, he went to Cambridge. There he studied at Peterhouse College. He left Cambridge University in 1739. Thereafter, during 1739-41, he made a tour of the continent, with the friend Horace Walpole, a son of the then British Prime Minister.

He returned to England in 1741. He settled in Cambridge and lived all his life in two colleges-Peterhouse and Pembroke. His first poem, An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, was begun in 1745 and published in 1750. It brought him great fame. It was again published in Six Poems (1735). Then his Odes were published in 1757.

In that year his fame as a poet was at its zenith. He was offered the Poet-Laureateship in 1757. But for some unknown reason he refused it. He breathed his last in July 1771.

His Works:

(1) Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard (1750) (2) Six Poems (1753)

(3) Odes (1757). They include ‘The Progress of Poesy’ and ‘The Bard’

(4) The Fatal Sisters

(5) The Descent of Odin (1768)

About The Poem

The Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is one of the most popular poems in English Literature. The Elegy was finished at Stoke Poges in 1750, when the poet was thirty-four years old. It was so popular that one edition followed quickly upon another, and it was even translated into foreign languages. Throughout the poem the lines are of equal length, each consisting of five feet or measures, and in a stanza the alternate lines rhyme.

Summary of elegy written in a country churchyard

In the beginning of the poem, the poet has given the details of the churchyard where he is sitting alone. The peasants and cattle are slowly returning home and the darkness of the evening changes into the night. The owl begins to hoot and there is complete solitariness. The poet sees the graves of the dead villagers under the trees around him and thinks that no power of the world, natural or human, can make them alive any more He is reminded of their life when they were alive, they did very hard work of ploughing, reaping and cutting trees all alone. Their children waited at the door of their houses for their return in the evenings. He calls upon the proud, rich and ambitious people not to be proud of themselves and hate these poor hard workers. The monuments have not been built on their graves.

He imagines the hidden power of these peasants. They could have become great musicians, singers or rulers but they could not become any of these because they remained uneducated. Their poverty was an obstacle in their path of progress. However, they gained something great that they remained away from committing crimes and never felt shame on their evil acts. When these rustics died, some uneducated poet wrote a few lines from the Bible on their graves.

While dying they wished that they should be remembered after death by their friends and near and dear ones. The poet thinks that one day he himself would also die and some close relative would come to the village searching for him. He will tell that nobody saw the poet for two days and on the third day, he saw his dead body being taken to the churchyard. He will take him to the grave under the thorn plant where the poet was buried. The lines on the tomb of the poet say that he never enjoyed wealth or fame. He had sympathy for the poor and suffering. His merits and faults will be judged by God.

Elegy written in a country churchyard

Stanza 1

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Stanza 2

 Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight.

And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight

And drowsy tinkling lull the distant folds;

Stanza 3

Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled tower,

The moping owl does to the moon complain

 Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,

 Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Stanza 4

 Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

 where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap.

 Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Stanza 5

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,

The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,

The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,

 No more shall rouse them their lowly bed.

Stanza 6

 For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

 Or busy housewife ply her evening care;

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Stanza 7

 Oft did harvest to their sickle yield,

 Their furrow oft the glebe has broke;

 How jocund did they drive their team afield

How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Stanza  8

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
   Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;               
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
   The short and simple annals of the poor.

Stanza 9

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
   And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.                          
   The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Stanza 10

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to These the fault,
   If Memory o’er their Tomb no Trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted
      vault
   The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.  

Stanza 11

Can storied urn or animated bust
   Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honor’s voice provoke the silent dust,
   Or Flattery sooth the dull cold ear of Death?

 Stanza 12

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid                     
   Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,
   Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Stanza 13

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
   Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;          
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
   And froze the genial current of the soul

Stanza14

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
   The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,                
   And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Stanza 15

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
   The little Tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
   Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s              
     blood.

 Stanza 16

The applause of listening senates to command,
   The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
   And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

 Stanza 17

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone                
   Their growing virtues, but their crime  confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
   And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

Stanza 18

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
   To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,              
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
   With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Stanza 19

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
   Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life                    
   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Stanza 20

Yet even these bones from insult to protect,
   Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
   Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

 Stanza 21

Their name, their years, spelt by the unletter’d   muse,
   The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
   That teach the rustic moralist to die.

Stanza 22

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
   This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
   Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

Stanza 23
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
   Some pious drops the closing eye requires;              
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
   Ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.

Stanza 24
For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured Dead
   Dost in these lines their artless tale relate,
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,                    
   Some kindred Spirit shall inquire thy fate,


stanza 25
Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
   “Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
   To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.  

 Stanza 26               
“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
   That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
   And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

Stanza 27

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,               
   Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
   Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless
      love.

Stanza 28

“One morn I missed him on the customed hill,
   Along the heath and near his favorite tree;           
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
   Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

Stanza 29

“The next with dirges due in sad array
   Slow through the church-way path we saw him
      borne.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,         
   Graved on the stone beneath yon agéd thorn.”

The epitaph:  stanza 30 to 32

Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
    A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
    And Melancholy marked him for her own.               

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
    Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
    He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a
      friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,                  
    Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
    The bosom of his Father and his God.

elegy written in a country churchyard line by line explanation

STANZA 1: The curfew……………………………and to me.

Reference to the Context:

These lines have been extracted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities at evening.

Explanation: The curfew was an evening bell which originally warned people to cover their fires, put out their lights, and go to bed. It was instituted in England after the Norman Conquest. Having heard it, the farmers have stopped their farming. Now they are coming back home ward. The bellowing group of animals is going on tract with them. The farmers are walking with tired steps. The short way has become very long for them. It seems with animals, darkness too is following them. They are going onward leaving all in darkness. The poet sitting in the churchyard is surrounded with darkness.

Comments:

(i) Curfew – The word comes from the French couvrir (cover) and feu (fire),

(ii) The poem begins in a great melancholy the day is parting’.

(iii) The herd and the ploughman are tired.

(iv) The tone is sombre.

STANZA 2: Now fades………………. solitary reign.

Reference to the Context: These lines have been quoted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities at evening. The poet has great interest in the life of common people and their activities. The evening bell has warned people to cover their fires, put out their lights, and go to bed. Having heard it, the farmers have stopped their farming. Now they are coming back homeward. It seems with animals; darkness too is following them. They are going onward leaving all in darkness.

Explanation: The poet sitting in the churchyard is surrounded with darkness. There disappears the faint shine and a holy silence suggestive of death dominates the sight. The silence is disturbed by beetle that flies in circle and produces the sound of buzzing. Sleeping animals’ bell produce light sound that make them asleep in the distant enclosures for sheep. At some distance the tower of the church at Stoke Poges is covered with creepers, there shines the moon that disturbs the owl. The sad owl takes rest at a dark place of residing that is disturbed by the moonlight.

Comments :

(i)The poet’s deeply rooted romanticism makes him interested in uncommon sights and activities of small insects.

 (ii) The coming darkness makes the atmosphere sombre and prepares the background for the elegy

(iii)The phrase ‘Solemn stillness’ is appropriate.

 STANZA 8 : Let not ……………….. the grave.

Reference to the Context: These lines have been extracted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities at evening. The poet has great interest in the life of common people and their activities. He thinks over worldly people’s unjust behaviour towards the poor.

Explanation: The worldly people take great pride in their prosperity and forget that the poor too are human beings like them. They think the poor are inferior to them. The poet pleads against this inhuman tendency. According to him, ambitious people should not laugh at useful labour of these villagers. They grow grain that is the basic necessity of human existence. Man may live without everything but bread. Therefore, they deserve great honour. It is a matter of great shame that still the farmers are poor. Their simple joys and dark future ought to be respected. Royal persons should not be scornful to their simple tales of life. The pride of royal birth and show of power, beauty or wealth prove useless because unavoidable moment of death waits equally for all. The ways of worldly progress end in grave. Keeping this crude truth in mind all people should have faith in the dignity of labour and respect a true worker.

STANZA 11: Can storied………………. of Death?

Reference to the Context: These lines have been quoted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities at evening. According to him, ambitious people should not laugh at useful labour of these villagers.

Explanation: The ways of worldly progress end in grave. Keeping this crude truth in mind all people should have faith in the dignity of labour and respect a true worker.

The worldly people take great pride in their prosperity and forget that the poor too are human beings like them. They think the poor are inferior to them. The poet pleads against this inhuman tendency. The poet warns those who are proud enough to blame the poor farmers for not having memorials for their dead forefathers. It was the custom to bury the poorer people of a village in the churchyard, and the rich or high-born in the church. But the poet does not regard it a matter to be proud of, for all these vain customs or formalities are meaningless. The loud songs of their false praise cannot make them alive. The funeral urns such as were used by the ancients were frequently decorated with scenes from the life of the deceased or life-like statues can’t call back the dead man to life. The dead body has no sense to hear speeches of sycophancy made to please the dead. It is better to fulfil the dreams of the dear departed.

STANZA 12:

 Perhaps in………….of the soul.

Reference to the Context: These lines have been extracted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities in the evening.

Explanation: According to the poet, ambitious people should not laugh at the useful labour of these villagers. The poet accounts for the misfortunes of the poor. The worldly people take great pride in their prosperity and forget that the poor too are human beings like them. They think the poor are inferior to them. The poet pleads against this inhuman tendency. The poet claims that on getting proper opportunity these farmers too could have made great progress. In these poor graves those unfortunate persons’ dead bodies are laid who were inspired with divine blessing. They were talented enough to hold the scepter and rule a state. On getting a proper opportunity they might have played a musical instrument and thrilled the souls of all listeners. They were devoid of scholarship. They were ignorant of the wide range of knowledge and treasure of time. Their discouraging poverty crushed their enthusiasm and disheartened their talent. In this condition they remained uneducated and backward. It is a matter of shame rather than pride that we have no sense to honour their true talent.

STANZA 14:

Full many ….. ……… the desert air.

 Reference to the Context: These lines have been quoted from

Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Sitting at the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the rural activities in the evening. According to him, ambitious people should not laugh at the useful labour of these villagers.

Explanation: The poet accounts for the misfortunes of the poor. He claims that on getting proper opportunity these farmers too could have made great progress.

The worldly people take great pride in their prosperity and forget C that the poor too are human beings like them. They think the poor are inferior to them. The poet pleads against this inhuman tendency. The poet claims that on getting proper opportunity these farmers too could have made great progress. Their discouraging poverty crushed their enthusiasm and disheartened their talent. It is a matter of shame rather than pride that we have no sense to honour true talent. To make his viewpoint clear, the poet borrows pearl and flower imagery. A number of pearls of true excellence are hidden in unknown and unmeasured caves of the sea, therefore, nobody knows about them and they remain neglected. In the same way, there are a number of flowers that fade in the desert and there is none to value their beauty and fragrance.

STANZA 15:

Some village….his country’s blood.

Reference to the Context: These lines have been extracted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Sitting in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the poet accounts for the misfortunes of the poor. He claims that on getting proper opportunity these farmers too could have made great progress. To make his viewpoint clear, the poet borrows pearl and flower imagery and refers to history.

Explanation: The worldly people take great pride in their prosperity and forget that the poor too are human beings like them. They think the poor are inferior to them. The poet pleads against this inhuman tendency. The poet imagines that on getting proper opportunity some of these villagers could be great like Hampden. John Hampden was an English patriot who refused to pay taxes levied by the King without the consent of Parliament. He died in 1643 from a wound received while fighting for the liberty of England. His fearless heart showed the power of common men. Some of these villagers could be great poets like Milton. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost’, is generally ranked as the greatest English poet after Shakespeare. Some of these villagers could be great leaders like Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell, the famous Protector, is now regarded by historians in general as one of the foremost champions of English liberty. It was the want of opportunity that these poor villagers could not make progress in life.

 STANZA 22:

For who ……. wonted fires.

 Reference to the Context: These lines have been quoted from Gray’s famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The poet is sitting in the churchyard of Stoke Poges. He accounts for the misfortunes of the poor.

Explanation: He claims that on getting proper opportunity these farmers too could make great progress. The thought of the dead farmers makes him highly emotional and he broods over the psychology of a dying person.

Death always comes as a hard stroke or the bolt from the blue. Nobody wishes to die but when it seems inevitable, he wishes to breathe more for a while. The poet asks who is not victim of death and who gives up the life full of joy and sorrow quite willingly. In fact, nobody welcomes death. Everybody dies with desire to live more. Life piled on the life would appear too little to a worldly person. Yet while dying, he worries much for those whom he leaves behind him. He wishes to appoint a caretaker for them. Now this person expresses faith in a particular friend or relative and hands over his responsibilities to him. The dying person expects some true tears in the eyes of his near and dear ones. He forgets the deep philosophy that his soul is getting liberty from the bonds of body and life. Whenever his friends, relatives or successors see his grave, they think about liking and disliking as well as dreams and hopes of the dead. It reminds them of the incomplete or unfulfilled wishes of the dead. It becomes the duty of the living to fulfil whatever is left unfulfilled by the dead.

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